Quarterback Pat White and his West Virginia teammates took hold of a coiled rope hanging off the locker room door before setting out onto Mountaineer Field at Milan Puskar Stadium.
The idea, instilled by then-West Virginia head coach Rich Rodriguez, reminded his players to hold onto your teammates as brothers.
“Understanding if he is on the edge of a cliff and the only thing keeping you together was a rope—hold that rope until you can’t,” White said. “Never let go.”
Eleven years later, that one phrase continues to stick with White, who is arguably the greatest running quarterback in NCAA history.
“Hold the ropes,” White said. “It’s one of those ‘fight for your life and your brother’s life statements’ that brings back the hard efforts, the countless hours and the relationships of brothers—not wanting to let them down.”
It’s an ironic theme that has stuck with Rodriguez his entire head coaching career.
He has since racked up a 115-77 (.598) overall record in the sport of college football. He has led his teams to 10 bowl games—including a Sugar Bowl and a Fiesta Bowl—produced five consensus All-Americans and seen 24 players drafted to the next level.
A whole lot of baggage
Twenty-one Michigan coaches and staff members sat around a table, waiting for Rodriguez to open the door. No one said a word. No one moved a muscle.
Eventually, Rodriguez returned from his meeting with then-Michigan Athletics Director Dave Brandon. Rodriguez would be fired after three years with the program.
“When you see a man work that hard and your dreams don’t work out, that’s tough,” sports and business author John U. Bacon said. “It’s hard to watch.”
Bacon wrote the novel “Three and Out,” a detailed account of Rodriguez and his time at Michigan, which debuted at No. 6 on the New York Times Bestseller list.
“It’s much harder to be a coach than I thought,” Bacon said. “I walked away saying $2.5 million is a lot of money to do anything, but I would not take that job for $2.5 million. It’s non-stop pressure.”
While his time at Michigan most certainly did not go according to plan, Rodriguez saw greater success at his alma mater, West Virginia.
“Early in the book, [Bacon] writes, ‘Rich Rod was the second most popular guy in the state of West Virginia, behind only the Governor,’” said Greg Hansen, Arizona Daily Star columnist. “Could you imagine that now? It’s almost night-and-day different. He’s almost incognito here [in Tucson].”
At West Virginia, Rodriguez got off to a sure-fire start after a horrendous first year. The Mountaineers made it to five bowl games from 2002-2006.
He had placed the program in the upper echelon of the sport by his seventh year. The Mountaineers were ranked No. 2 in the AP Poll and stayed atop the polls through the final week of the season.
With a 10-1 record and one remaining home game against rival Pittsburgh, West Virginia looked to be in position to make the national title game.
Then the Mountaineers gave out at the worst possible time.
“Let’s just say, 13-9,” White said, reciting the score of the fateful loss. “That’s my least favorite memory.”
He wound up dislocating his thumb in the second quarter and the Mountaineers fell for just the second time that season. A few weeks later, Rodriguez announced he would be taking a job as the head coach at the University of Michigan.
“It left a sour taste in some people’s mouth, and probably for a hot second, I had a sour taste in my mouth from the situation,” White said. “I’ve come to learn that he honored my process for four years. He gave me an opportunity to do what I wanted to do and that was be a division-one quarterback. I am still a Rich Rodriguez fan.”
The spread offense
Rodriguez happened upon his famed zone-read offense by pure chance, a complete accident in his first head coaching gig at Glennville State.
“The spread offense is one of the greatest innovations in college football since the platoon system of 1945,” Bacon said. “It is flatly brilliant.”
White is one of the most famous quarterbacks to run the spread offense, as he managed an NCAA QB record 4,480 career rushing yards and more than 103 touchdowns during his time at WVU.
At the age of 10, White remembers playing park ball in Mobile, Alabama.
“We were running the spread offense and triple reverse passes and double passes—all types of fun plays,” White said.
In the spread offense, the quarterback is the head signal caller on the play, drawing the defense and posing as a running threat. This automatically blocks a running lane, leaving somebody open to make a play.
“If it’s the quarterback, you run. If it’s one of the receivers, you pass it. If it’s one of the tailbacks, you run,” Bacon said. “It was an extremely exciting offense to watch.”
The offense saw so much success that it has been manipulated by college football coaches all over the country and in the NFL.
“[White] was the hottest guy out there offensively 10 years ago,” Hansen said. “By the time he got to Arizona, there were so many copycats that were doing exactly what he did, and even refining it. Chip Kelly gets all the credit publicly, but he just basically picked up Rich Rod’s stuff.”
It's Rod, Rich Rod
Rodriguez is a college football funny man. Just ask former UA running back, now Chicago Bears player Ka’Deem Carey.
“He has some dance moves,” Carey said. “In the locker room, he would show them off. One time, he cracked the robot. It was pretty smooth.”
Rodriguez put on a tuxedo in August 2015 and became everybody’s favorite secret agent James Bond in the UA football video “License to Thrill.”
Just a week earlier, Rodriguez had made national news as he lined up with the Arizona GymCats to show off his Stanky Leg.
“Dating back to his WVU days, he’s always one of the most, if not the most, engaging head coaches in college football,” said Bruce Feldman, FOX Sports College Football Insider. “He’s got a terrific sense of humor. I’ve seen him work the booster circuit at the UA, and I’m convinced he’s the funniest guy in football.”
Rodriguez and his Wildcats most recently showed off their Gladiator spirit, asking fans: Are you not entertained?
“Too often, we have fallen into the trap of treating college football like it’s something all-consuming and serious,” said Pac-12 Networks play-by-play announcer JB Long. “I think Rich Rod has reminded us that it’s okay to not take yourself too seriously.”
And the new Arizona football head coach is …
Arizona Athletic Director Greg Byrne announced via Twitter in November 2011 that Rodriguez was hired to be the next head coach of the Wildcats.
And the new Arizona football coach and his family is....... http://t.co/kiCBPDdO— Greg Byrne (@Greg_Byrne) November 22, 2011
“He led them to a 10-win season for only the second time in school history,” Feldman said. “That tells you how good of a coach he is.”
Five seasons later, Rodriguez has compiled 35 victories, four bowl appearances and won the Pac-12 Conference South division with Arizona to appear in the Pac-12 Championship and later, the Fiesta Bowl.
“He’s got support from Greg Byrne that he didn’t always have at Michigan,” Bacon said. “In Arizona, Rich has the full support of the university, and you can see what he can do when he’s got that.”
While he has seen success on the field, Rodriguez is very much a mystery off the field.
“It’s hard because he is so private,” Hansen said. “You don’t really get to know him.”
His players certainly see a different side. While Carey was recruited by former Arizona coach Mike Stoops, he called Rodriguez a “players’ coach.”
“Rich Rod took me under his wing as soon as he came into the UA,” Carey said. “He’s been a good role model for me and showed me how to be a young man with a lot of success at that age. Thank you to Rich Rod.”
Rodriguez’s family is now a part of the Wildcat legacy. His wife, Rita, is famous for her nachos, awarded to the players of the week during the football season. His daughter, Raquel, is the female captain of the Arizona cheer and mascots program. His son, Rhett, who plays quarterback at Catalina Foothills, will join the Wildcats as part of the 2017 recruiting class.
“[He’s a] strong family man—great father,” Bacon said. “It’s extremely hard to be a great father when you are spending that many hours at the office. He’s raised two great kids. ... It was interesting to watch them grow up probably faster than they wanted to or should, but they handled it with tremendous grace.”
Raquel had to gather her belongings to move with her father to Michigan during middle school. During high school, she uprooted her life to move to Arizona.
“Even in times of adversity, seeing him be so strong makes me proud to be his daughter,” Raquel said.
While Rich Rodriguez has many mantras, one in particular sticks out to former consensus All-American Ka'Deem Carey.
“You gotta be comfortable being uncomfortable,” Carey said.
The phrase is one that most certainly describes Rodriguez’s career.
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Video via Arizona Wildcats Youtube, Arizonawildcats.com.